The Coalition, Scarcity and the Afghan Army Logistics System

The Coalition, Scarcity and the Afghan Army Logistics System

Philip Lere

In 2009 a US-led Coalition adjusted its logistics strategy and deliberately set out to create an Afghan logistics system that was based on the western model of “demand” or “pull” based sustainment.[i]  Unfortunately, the Afghan Army, and much of the security apparatus, is not ready for a pull system.  Despite a decade and half of North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Coalition efforts to reshape the Afghan logistics enterprise, scarcity and uncertainty remain intact in much the same way as they did during the Soviet era.  Remaining Coalition efforts should focus on working within scarcity by trying to stabilize a functional push style system that can adequately sustain the Afghan Army without intervention below the strategic level.  A modified push-style system better fits the dynamics of the Afghan army logistics enterprise.  At the very least, ongoing logistics strategies should be reevaluated to better align with the realities of Afghanistan. 

Critical factors affecting logistics outcomes in the Afghan Army logistics system are Afghanistan’s relationship to the strategic patron and a scarcity outlook.  These dynamics have deep roots in Afghan history and affect the way Afghan logistics officers perceive and operate their system.  More importantly, the dynamics are often misunderstood by Coalition advisors in their effort to create a western-style logistics system.  Despite years of persistent attempts to change these dynamics, they continue to be the defining context of the Afghan Army supply system.  A better understanding of these dynamics will inform stronger and more effective logistics policy which can adequately sustain Afghan forces.

The nature of an army says a lot about the society it represents.  This is also true for a logistics system.  Western logistics supply chains reflect societies that have faith in rule of law and the rights of the individual.  Consequently, the western supply chain model has evolved into a system commonly referred to as a “pull” system.  A pull system seeks to meet military logistics’ demand by generating bottom-up requests from lower echelons.  Lower echelons make their requirements known and higher echelons try to manage and meet their requests.  Conversely, a push system is a top-down enterprise where the upper echelons determine the requirements for the lower echelons and sustain them accordingly.  While all logistics systems have aspects of both push and pull, a system will tend to gravitate towards one or the other based on operational context, history, and culture.  Historical Afghan logistics systems, to the extent information is available, have tended to favor top-down, push-style enterprises.[ii]

The Scarcity Outlook

Coalition leaders have observed that many Afghan logisticians operate with an outlook of scarcity.[iii]  A scarcity outlook exists when resources are not readily available or resupply is uncertain.  During scarcity, real or perceived, resources are precious commodities that need to be preserved and closely managed.  In Afghanistan, the fear of scarcity creates the same effects in logistics as scarcity itself.  The Afghan Army logistics system operates in a cycle of scarcity and perceived scarcity because of uncertainty that encompasses the tactical and strategic level.  Even while the supplies from the patron may flow, the scarcity outlook remains because, to an Afghan, no patron lasts forever.

The scarcity outlook particularly affects distribution of available materiel.  If supplies are difficult to replace it makes sense to conserve and closely manage what you have.  As an example of close management, it takes 45 signatures to submit a request to remove an item from a property book in the Afghan system, not including the paperwork required to get distribution instructions.[iv]  This is a frustrating aspect of Afghan logistics for western advisors who are accustomed to fairly abundant supply chains which can easily cross-level and replenish materiel at all levels of supply.  Scarcity is a rarely experienced condition in western supply chains, and this poorly prepares advisors for their role in the Afghan system. 

In addition to scarcity within Afghanistan, the larger strategic context of the region affects the Afghan Army logistics system.  In Central and South Asia, weaker countries play the larger powers off each other in order to maximize resources and concessions from powerful patrons.[v]  Afghan leaders have used this particular strategy to varying degrees since at least the British colonial era of the 1800s.[vi]  Today, with the US and NATO as a patron, Afghanistan manages benefits from foreign patronage by playing to western interests while simultaneously courting Chinese, Russian, and even Indian support.[vii]

The patron influences the logistics system primarily by controlling the type of support and weapons systems that will be provided.  By controlling how weapons systems are purchased and which ones are used, the patron can wield tremendous influence within the Afghan military.  Soviet advising efforts in the 1980’s focused on creating an Afghan army equipped with Soviet weaponry and doctrine.  Similarly, US and Coalition efforts have tried to equip and field an army based on western models.  The patron sets the mold.  In logistics, the patron will tend to replicate their own sustainment system in the Afghan military.  Most recently, this has meant Coalition forces have tried to create a pull or demand-based system in Afghanistan.[viii]

By setting the type of weaponry and accompanying support processes, the patron affects complexity in the supply chain.  All supply chains are inherently complex, however, the system for managing that complexity is an important aspect of patron influence.  Should complexity be managed by an advanced, networked database, or will complexity be managed with a paper-based filing system?   Will logisticians work within a pull or push system?  Interwoven throughout the complexity of the Afghan system is the scarcity outlook.  Management of complexity and scarcity are decisions the patron tries to impose on the client with varying levels of success. 

From a Coalition perspective the Afghan scarcity outlook is unjustified and needs to be corrected through well meaning advising efforts.  Surely, years of constant support, and the piles of accompanying supplies, are enough to reduce scarcity.   From a western viewpoint this seems logical; however, it does not take into account the long-term Afghan perspective on both history and strategy.  Supplies seem to have flowed regularly over the last few years; but there are few guarantees that the patron will continue to provide support.  After all, the Afghan military logistics system has seen two superpower patrons come and go in just the last few decades.  As long as the political nature of the patron is uncertain, the scarcity mindset will continue permeate the Afghan logistics system.  The uncertainty over the viability of the Afghan government and ongoing conflict with the Taliban contributes to a feeling of scarcity as well.  Because of the scarcity outlook Afghan actors at every level of government are constantly postured to extract as much as they can from their western allies, and then stockpile those precious supplies for later advantage.  Given recent history in Afghanistan, a scarcity outlook makes sense as a hedge against uncertainty.

Afghan Logistics: To Push or To Pull

Coalition senior advisors often recognize the dynamics of scarcity and strategic patronage but have not taken steps to adjust logistics policy to the Afghan context.  It is time to reconsider Coalition efforts in light of how scarcity persists in the system despite concerted, long-term partnership.  It is better to work within the Afghan dynamics than to ignore them or try to change them.

Scarcity and fear of scarcity are clear traits of the Afghan logistics system.  Coalition efforts so far have focused mostly on trying to reduce scarcity.  However, Coalition commitment to Afghanistan has not been open ended enough to thoroughly deal with scarcity.  Large quantities of supplies have flowed in to the system, but there was always an end date in the future when that support would stop or slow.  This sharpened scarcity by making it seem that every piece of equipment that flowed into  theater could be among the last.  If you know a famine is coming, you store up as much as you can before it comes.  Afghans know a lot about famine.  In many ways, the last decade and half has been a long storage period for the day when support from the west dries up.  

Coalition logisticians should adjust their efforts by considering which type of logistics system is best suited for scarcity as it appears in Afghanistan.  Based on the strategic context, a push system seems to fit better because its doctrine is more easily implemented by Afghan logisticians. Specifically, a push-style system can indirectly reduce scarcity by decreasing uncertainty.  The Afghan logisticians’ shared understanding of the push system decreases uncertainty.[ix]  Push systems do no magically create more materiel, but the top-down management style is more suitable to the Afghan context.  By working within a framework Afghan logisticians already understand, scarcity can be more effectively managed.   

A pull-type system can work in a scarcity environment if there are developed demand management techniques within the enterprise.  However, a pull system requires a specific type of professional logistician and advanced information management systems that Afghanistan simply does not have even after fifteen years of western investment.  The specific skills for operating a western system may not be readily available for at least a generation, if ever.  Much of western logistics advising efforts have been an attempt to graft advanced information management techniques and systems on to a society that is simply not ready for them.  These decisions were often made without an assessment of the Afghan logistics systems as they existed before 2001, or as they exist currently.  The Coalition decision to implement a demand-based system appears to have been made with little awareness of the Afghan perspective on logistics.[x]    

The Soviet style push system has taken deeper root in the Afghan logistics community because it was better suited for the context of the Afghan Army.  Despite a longer engagement period, a western pull system has not penetrated to nearly the same level of acceptance and common understanding.  The Soviets, with a relatively simple push system, managed to embed their methodology deep into the Afghan logistics enterprise.  The Soviet system was designed for an illiterate, mass army and this is closer to the current state of the Afghan Army.   In an ironic twist, NATO could learn some useful lessons from the Soviet advising effort in Afghanistan. 

Logistics advisors should find ways to work within Afghan familiarity with the Soviet method.  Turkey or former eastern bloc countries may offer insight into more effective models that can offer improvements to logistics advising in Afghanistan.  Simple solutions that do not require advanced training and management should receive particular attention.  Pakistan manages its F-16 supply chains with nothing more than note cards.[xi]  The western effort to create a pull system should be reevaluated in light of more appropriate models that could be better for Afghanistan.  Intricate western-style weapons systems should be replaced by equipment that can be more easily maintained or cheaply replaced.  Overly complex supply chains will not sustain the Afghan force.  Information management systems should be confined to strategic level offices or eliminated all together.  Much effort has been spent chasing automation and advanced commodity forecasting through modern information systems, and it is unlikely they will be sustainable in the context they were applied.  Pen and paper logistics is a viable option that most Afghans understand and this should not be dismissed by well meaning advisors who are locked into western thinking.

Instead of building a system that responds to demands, emphasis should be put on nurturing a system that can distribute commodities based on a schedule, not a western style request process.  More progress can be made by working within a push system many Afghan logisticians already understand.[xii]  This type of system is not necessarily efficient, but it may be the only option for a people who desperately need effectiveness right now.  

A modified push-system for Afghanistan would shun modern information technology systems, advanced weaponry, and complex demand-management processes.  This would be a logistics enterprise that better fits the context of the society it seeks to serve.  It is time to revaluate remaining efforts to ensure residual, strategic influence.  The outcome of the war may well rest on how this chapter of logistics advising closes. 

End Notes

[i] US Department of Defense Inspector General Report, Assessment of US Government and Coalition Efforts to Develop the Logistics Sustainment Capability of the Afghan National Army. Dec 2014

[ii] Charles A. Russo Jr, Lt Colonel, Soviet Logistics in the Afghan War. US Army War College, Carlisle PA, 1991 p5

[iii] Ibid IG report, p34

[iv] Ibid IG report, p28

[v] Alexander Cooley, Great Games, Local Rules. Oxford University Press, 2012

[vi] Thomas Barefield, Afghanistan, Princeton University Press, 2010, p6-11

[vii] Frud Bezham, "Afghanistan's Dostum Turns To Old Ally Russia For Help." Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, October 7, 2015, Afghanistan sec. Accessed January 19, 2016. Ankit Panda “Why Afghanistan and India are about to Transform their Relationship,” The Diplomat, November 24, 2015. Accessed January 19, 2016.

[viii] Ibid IG report p3

[ix] John M Gillette, Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?. Small Wars Journal, February  2013

[x] John M Gillette, Confusing Deference with Agreement. Small Wars Journal, December 2011

[xi] Ibid, Gillette 2011 p2

[xii] Ibid, Gillette 2013


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The irony of NATO assistance with logistics is that in trying to teach a "pull" down system to the Afghans the NATO leadership "pushed" down how to do logistics. If cultural and historical factors had been considered first a better outcome would be in store after 15 years and for less costs.

In 2003 there were about 600 Soviet trained Afghan officers looking for employment daily at MOD HQ. They could have resurrected the old Afghan Army fairly quickly but the US decided to start from scratch. New organizations made the existing and well known Soviet ones irrelevant and most of the Dari or Pashtu manuals useless. New culture-the introduction of NCOs being the most damaging. Ignoring most of a modern army other than the rifle company (thanks USSF) didn't help.

The change from Soviet to "NATO" also had the perverse effect of making understanding between the two forces more difficult. The "Soviet" handbooks NATO armies issued to their officers were correct and in line with what the Soviets had given the Afghans. When 18 Abn Corps HQ went off on it's tangent to make a new Afghan National Army it wiped out a lot of potential for mutual understanding.